Alex Brant tries out Browning's latest X-Bolt rifle, and is impressed with what he sees.
The first big game rifle that I ever owned was an old (although new at the time) classic Browning Safari .30-06 based on its Mauser style action. It was classic and beautiful with a great piece of wood and quite accurate, although the bolt, even by Mauser standards, was somewhat sloppy. But sloppy is probably not the correct nomenclature. It did have a lot of lateral play when moving the bolt forward and back, and personally I find that as good a term as any to describe it.
The new X-Bolt is a million miles in design, form and function from the classic Mauser. Before I go any further, I must say that my own view of aesthetics often overrides practicality and functionality. About 30 years ago I was at an early SHOT Show (the big North American industry show) in the USA when I was editor-in-chief for a number of shooting and big game hunting magazines. Every manufacturer was there from familiar names such as Federal and Winchester to specialized firms with offerings like fully automatic Uzis.
Blaser was there with a new design with interchangeable barrels etc. etc. As my own aesthetics went more to a square bridge, preferably double square bridge, Mauser based on a stock design from Rigby, Purdey or Holland or any top custom USA stock-maker, I thought the rifle was doomed to failure. Boy was I wrong! Aesthetically, I still prefer the looks and feel of a classic rifle with the Magnum Mauser, or one of its custom variations, or a Winchester Model 70, being the paradigm.
That said, I was also one of the first guys to hunt the world extensively with stainless steel barrels and fibreglass or composite stocks. In the late 70s, there was an excellent custom gunmaker, Chet Brown (Brown Precision - still going strong) who would make custom rifles for me most often based on Winchester Model 70 or Remington 700 Actions. He made a number of rifles for me in calibres from .270 Weatherby up to .375 H&H. These rifles were fairly lightweight - which is why I did not have anything made in a calibre bigger than .375 - all extremely accurate, with proper action and trigger jobs, crowned muzzles, lapped lugs etc. The beauty of this combination - stainless steel barrels and fibreglass - is that one can hunt mountains, deserts, swamps on alternate days without the need to re-sight (though one should check zero often for 'knocks' in field or transport).
For quite a long time now, one has been able to buy off the shelf rifles with stainless steel barrels and synthetic stocks. There is a great advantage to both.
Stainless steel shoots to the same point of impact out of a cold barrel. In other words, no matter how good a job you do in sighting in your rifle, when you take it out to hunt with it again the first shot with normal steel barrels is often slightly off, although usually not enough for most to notice. All rifles after being cleaned, do need one shot through them, known as a fouling shot, before they are taken afield.
The new Browning X-Bolt is in many ways an excellent rifle. The trigger is a new design which they call a Feather Trigger, a simple, robust trigger system that uses three levers and I am told that the mechanical advantage added by the third lever eliminates creep. The trigger is supposed to be adjustable from three to five pounds and is set at the factory in the three and a half to four pound range, at least in part to limit liability especially in the litigious US of A. It is crisp, breaks like glass, has no slack and on my rifle no over travel. This is great stuff! Unfortunately the rifle supplied to me has a trigger a little bit heavier than I would like. I prefer two and a half to three pounds. Less than three pounds makes most gunsmiths twitchy, but I used to shoot target rifles in the half ounce to two ounce range.
The X-Bolt is very accurate and resin bedded. Supposedly one can take the barreled action out, adjust the trigger and drop it back in, but I must admit I am a little bit loathe to do so. The Remington 40X and a number of the Savages (Accu-triggers) have externally adjustable triggers, where weight of pull can be easily modified with a little screw driver or a hex screw. I wish Browning had incorporated that feature as it would then have been the perfect trigger system.
The rifle that I have been shooting is a .270 Winchester which is one of my favourite calibres. It is, like all synthetic stocks, slightly light and whippy but shoots beautifully, especially with a moderator to add some weight to the barrel. Browning uses a very soft recoil pad called Inflex, which seems to work very well. I am not recoil sensitive unless extreme... 500+.
Browning makes its own bases for the rifle which is different in that it uses four screws to mount the base. For all rifles and mounting with the exception of German Claws and EAWs which are often "dropped in" to double rifles, heavier duty screws known as Magnum Screws and Loctite, should be employed so that recoil does not create looseness over time.
After I received my test rifle and looking on the US Browning website, it now shows bases with integral rings of different heights available both in one inch and 30mm sizes. This is really brilliant as it allows home tinkerers to mount their own scopes without all of the expertise (not huge, but still needed) to make sure that alignment is perfectly straight so that scope tubes are not bent - a more frequent occurrence than most shooters are aware.
The action itself is very slick and very good. Three lug bolt with a short 60 degree lift. It has a robust M16 type extractor and plunger style ejector to throw spent brass well clear of the action.
Accuracy too is excellent. The barrel is hammer forged and has a recessed target crown (not relevant for my rifle, which came pre-threaded for a moderator - excellent and cost effective). The barrel is free floating - more useful in some stock and bedding configurations than others. In this case it works. The top of the magazine places the cartridge in the line with the centre of the bore for a smooth direct feed into the chamber.
All my three shot groups were under an inch and five shot groups, just a bit over MOA. It worked so well with the Winchester ammo supplied that I did not even experiment with other brands.
I am a big fan of ballistic tip bullets, at least for thin skinned, non-lethal species, for the simple reason that there tends to be less deformation from recoil within the magazine.
The magazine design, too, is unusual and excellent. It is easily removable, one can easily carry a spare if desired. The bolt comes out without fuss through a button release on the left side of the receiver which allows the bolt to be cycled without turning the safety off.
The stock is synthetic and one loves it or hates it. A wood version is also available with, I believe, cut checkering and an oil finish. Barrel lengths are 22 inches in standard calibres and 23 inches in WSM (Winchester Short Magnums) and 26 inch in full Magnum calibres. Personally I would have preferred to have seen 24 in the standard and 26 inches in the short mags, but again that is me. Whereas in a shotgun, inches do not matter much in terms of velocity, two or four inches in a rifle will often change velocity/ballistics dramatically.
The X-Bolt, available in a wide variety of calibres, is an excellent choice for stalkers. While not perfect, nothing is, it will probably prove an ideal rifle for many shooters. It is also great value for money. We also used the rifle extensively to shoot stags on our Tressady Estate. It was lent to a group of German clients, excellent Shots, who all had one shot kills with the rifle (seven for seven). Indeed, I bought my test rifle to use as an estate rifle here at Tressady where clients usually shoot 15 stags per week during the last month of the season.
Calibre and pricing
From £811, including 243, 7MM-08, 308, 2506, 270 Win, 280 Remington, 30-06, 7mm Rem Mag, 300 WinMag, 338 Magnum plus 270 ,7mm, 300 and 325 Win Short Mags.